Jochen Weber - Photography |  Photo Documentaries


A Visit to the Coffee
A photo documentary on coffee cultivation in Brazil

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Ripe Arabica fruits

Coffee tree with ripe fruits

The Coffee Fruit
('O fruto do café')

After the flowering, the cherries of the Arabica Coffee in this region have a maturing period of 6 to 8 months. The Arabica fruits are a little longer and bigger than those of the Robusta Coffee. Besides, they are significantly more sensitive and susceptible to weather conditions, infestation and diseases than Robusta Coffee. The matured fruit has a red, or – according to the variety – yellow-reddish outer skin. Inside is a soft, whitish and sugary fleshy fruit, the so-called pulp (‘pulpa’).

Opened, immature coffee fruit with two seeds

Typically, the fruits contain two seeds, the future coffee beans. Each seed is protected by a thin but solid silver membrane and both seeds are individually still enclosed in the thin beige inner layer parchment skin (‘pergaminho’).

In this predominantly microclimatic region with a mild average temperature between 18° und 20ºC, the Arabica varieties mature into a high quality and full-bodied coffee. This is characterized by a certain sweetness, a fruity aroma, and a delicate acidity.

The Harvest 
('A colheita')

This full-bodied coffee matures by April/May and then the time for coffee harvest begins, which lasts approximately till end of August. This is because the coffee cherries do not mature all at the same time and also the number of workers is limited. Coffee planter Paulo must decide when the harvest exactly begins and which methods have to be used.

Paulo explains to me the different harvesting methods he can choose from. These are dependent on the age of the coffee trees, the planting and the slope of the different fields, “and naturally the availability of the harvesting machines, which I must borrow,” he says. 

These are his options: 
  • Manual Harvest: Here due to time and cost constraints he chooses the stripping method (‚método por derriça’) instead of the selective picking method (‚colheita seletiva‘).
  • Semi-automatic Harvest: Paulo has a small harvest machine, which is pulled by a tractor. He uses it but not willingly, as it is laborious to operate.
  • Mechanical Harvest: He harvests part of the field with the help of a big harvesting machine (‚colhedeira‘), which he borrows from the Cooperative Cooparasío where he is a member.

In vain, I hope for a delicious coffee aroma in the air as I enter the coffee plantation for the first time. The workers are deftly stripping the cherries from the branches of the man-sized coffee trees – aha! stripping method – I think, and it smells rather fruity-tangy, a little earthy-sour, however any trace of the aroma of coffee is missing. This will only be released when the dried beans are heated while roasting.

The coffee harvest has nothing romantic, as the advertisement often suggests. It is a physically demanding activity, especially towards the end of a very dusty dry season in the month of August. But coffee provides work for a lot of people in the region, full employment prevails throughout the region.

Paulo on his supervisory ride on the coffee farm

Paulo Marcio Villela, coffee cultivator (‘cafeicultor’) on his
daily supervisory ride on the coffee farm with his ancient Willys
Jeep. This way he checks on the condition of his plantation and
the progress of the ripening on each specific field.   

The coffee yield fluctuates significantly from year to year: approximately every two years the coffee trees bear many fruits and provide for an extensive harvest – then they need this time period again to recover. “We call it a cyclical production,” explains Paulo. The yield of a tree fluctuates per harvest between 800 and 2,000 grams. “For the effort on the harvest it means that a worker must pluck 2.5 kg of cherries so that we obtain 500 gm of raw coffee.”

In the optimal ripening condition, the coffee cherries (‘cerejas’) are dark red, the still unripe fruits are green and the over ripe fruits become black. A (thumb) rule of the stripping method is to begin the harvest when approximately 20% of the fruits are unripe, that is green.

That is why our coffee consists of 55% ripened cherries, 25% fruits already dry on the trees, and 15% still green, not completely ripened fruits. The rest of the 5% are ‘coquinhos’* and ‘casquinhas’*: Fruits that have fallen on the ground must be raked together. Naturally, sorting must be done once again by this harvest method, because otherwise the quality of the coffee will not be good enough,” explains Paulo further.

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*see Box below
The coffee harvest has begun ...

Manual harvest: stripping method

Lezion harvesting on the tree-dried fruits

Américo harvesting at the end of the harvest season

Américo with the harvest at the end of the harvest                  
season. Due to the dryness it is a very dusty affair.

Fruits with varying degree of maturity on a tree

Mechanical Harvest: With the tractor in the coffee field

Mechanical Harvest: With the tractor in the coffee field

Manual harvest with the sieve

Manual harvest with the sieve

Lézio numbers the coffee sacks

Marinilda cleaning the coffee

If it rains, the lunch break is made in the bus

Towards the end of the harvest season even the soil is swept ...

The Manual Harvest
('A colheita manual')

Lézio at his first morning activity. He numbers the sacks, so that later when the coffee is carted off, it can be allocated to the workers: the payment is made according to the quantity of the harvested coffee.

Enrique harvests with the stripping method

Enrique narrates proudly, he is’ anyway already 71’! For that he is still quite
fit and smokes self-rolled cigarettes like a chimney. Just like the others of
the ‘Fazenda Boa Vista’ he harvests here with the so-called stripping method,
whereby he strips all fruits per branch, irrespective of their degree of
maturity. The stripped fruits fall down together with the leaves, twigs and
branches on a tarpaulin, which he has earlier spread out among the coffee trees.

Before Marinilda stows away the harvested cherries in the sacks, she frees them of leaves and branches. For that she uses a sieve, with which she tosses them up and catches them on their way down again. The she separates the branches and the leaves with the help of the breeze and through motion. Marinilda is by far ‘the best’ in the team: on good days, she fills up to twelve sacks in a day. Some colleagues are slower and fill only five sacks a day. She has the biggest tarpaulin, which she slides accurately under the coffee trees and she works the whole day with full concentration.

For a sack with 60kg of raw coffee, this year we are using a harvest of approximately 130 coffee trees. We have about 190,000 coffee trees in the farm. Now you have something to calculate,” says Paulo and laughs his infectious laughter.

The sieves with the coffee are not particularly weighty, however, the activity seen through the entire day is quite tiring.  

Lézio while coffee-cleaning early in the morning

In June it is already winter in the region and in the morning
it is always humid and relatively fresh; one needs a pullover.

The Fazenda Boa Vista has its own bus, which brings the people from the village to the Fazenda in the mornings and in the evenings takes them back to their house. Typically, for their afternoon break people look for a place outside in the shade – only when it rains, they spend their time on the bus

At the end of the harvest season the ground under the coffee trees is cleared ('arruação'), with a rake, so that more coffee fruits that have fallen on the ground can be collected.

Brazilian Terms for Different Levels of Maturity of the Coffee Fruit

  • Chumbinhos: Green, not yet fully matured coffee fruits
  • Verdolengos: Matured coffee fruits with yellow outer skin (‘epicarpo amarelado’, also: ‘verdoengos’)
  • Cerejas: Ripe coffee fruits with the typical red outer skin (‘epicarpo vermelho’): the coffee cherries
  • Passas: Black fruits, which have gone beyond the ideal level of ripeness, however, without becoming fully dry: the “Raisins”
  • Bóias: Dry, black fruits, which swim on top in the water tank: the ‘buoys’
The bóias are subdivided again in two types:
    • Coquinhos: Coffee fruits which have dried on the tree or on the ground, and   
    • Casquinhas: Coffee fruits which were shucked off during the harvest or while on the ground.

Coffee cleaning: "Abanar o café"

Coffee cleaning: "Abanar o café"

The Selective Harvesting Method
('Picking method' / 'Método seletiva')

With the selective harvesting method only the mature coffee cherries are individually picked. Paulo does not use this method. He simply cannot afford it. This method has many different names; it is also called selection method ('catação'), finger harvest ('colheita a dedo') or also basket harvest (‘colheita no cesto’). It takes place at intervals of several weeks, depending upon the ripening of the coffee cherries.

Typically, this harvest method is used in countries that produce special coffees ('cafés especiais') or washed coffees ('café lavado’) and where the labour cost is less than in Brazil. But more and more coffee farmers in Brazil are beginning to, for this reason, produce special coffees or perform appropriate experiments with small fields (‘microlotes’).

The Semi-Mechanical Harvest
('Colheita semi-mecanizada')

The harvesting can also be carried out with partial mechanical support. Due to the difficulties of recruiting workers, and also because of the high labour costs and incidental wage costs during harvest time, the farmers are always looking for cheaper, easier alternatives. Also when the geographic conditions in the area do not allow full mechanical harvest, a partial mechanical harvest can expedite the process, without the coffee quality suffering, explains Paulo to me.

A typical example for semi-mechanical harvest hand is for e.g. the mechanical shaker, which is pulled by the tractor. The fruits that have fallen on the tarpaulin can be further processed manually

With the picking method only the mature fruits are harvested

Harvester, which can be pulled by a tractor

Fully automatic coffee harvester

Coffee harvester in action

Vibrant hard plastic rods beat the coffee cherries from the branches
The Mechanical Harvest
('A colheita mecânica')

Even though the manual harvesting method is predominant in Brazil, the proportion of mechanical harvest is soaring. Owing to the relatively low costs, this is a question of survival for bigger coffee producers.

Also small coffee planters are managing increasingly more so with mechanical equipment during the harvesting process. The requirements for a mechanical harvest are in accordance with the planted field: the distance of the tree rows should be about 3 meters, so that the machine can move through the rows; the slopes thus cannot be too steep and the trees should be 5 or more years old.

When seen from the front, the harvest machine looks like it has actually swallowed the coffee trees. In the stomach of the machine hard plastic sticks are striking or better shaking the coffee cherries off the branches with quick vibrations. The frequency and the force of the strike of the sticks can be adjusted to the size and the quality of the coffee trees.

The severed cherries are caught at the bottom of the machine and in tanks or transported outside ingeniously. Paulo says that this type of machine was invented in Spain for the olive harvest and then adapted for the coffee harvest in Brazil.

The savings in costs through the mechanical harvest is enormous for the coffee farmers and the estimated number of workers that are spared because of the machine vary from 30 to over 50.

Small coffee farmers who are unable to afford the huge investment in a harvest machine can rent a harvest machine from a Coffee-Cooperative. The disadvantage is that there is an often, long waiting period till a machine becomes free.

With the mechanical harvest there can be no selection of the coffee fruits, i.e. the qualitative result is in accordance with the first manual stripping method.

The difference in the manual methods lies in the rule of the ensuing handling process: typically after the mechanical harvest, the process of wet and half dry treatment is applied. More details follow below later.

The coffee harvest machine in the field

The harvest machine in the field

On the coffee harvest machine

The inside of a harvest machine

The inside of a harvest machine

Coffee Story II
('História do café II')

The path to the water canal goes past the manor house, built in the colonial style, in which Paulo’s grandfather had lived. It is quite derelict, but because of family tradition as well as cultural interest Paulo wants to again restore it to its true original state. He lives in the nearby city of Tambaú.

In the year 1830 Brazil exported 3.2 million sacks of coffee, 60 kgs each. At the end of the Empire in 1890, there were 51.6 million sacks – Brazil’s proportion in the world coffee production increased in this period from one-third to almost two-fifths.

The actual work on the coffee plantation for many decades was done by slaves captured from among the Brazilian Indians, but primarily from Africa.

Due to this movement a huge economic and domestic problem for the abolition of slavery arose in the country. The import of African slaves was prohibited from 1853.  In 1871, the Law of the Free Belly (‘Lei do Ventre Livre’) granted all slaves, who were born after the Law came into force, freedom.

In 1885 all slaves over the age of 60 were declared free and in 1888 the ruler, Princess Isabel finally signed the Golden Law, ('Lei Áurea'), concluding the prohibition of slavery.

In this long transitional period of slavery prohibition, the famers, especially the coffee farmers here, started to replace slaves with immigrants.

In the last few years of slavery, it so happened that at a Fazenda, slaves and immigrants both worked next to each other.

Between 1872 and 1940 alone, about 5 million immigrants settled down in Brazil, a large part of them were Europeans: Portuguese, Italians, Spaniards and Germans; and also many Japanese came into the country.

The old "mansion" of the farm to be restored

A scene like a time warp into the last century ...

Photographed in the 'Memorial do Imigrante', São Paulo

Photographed at the 'Memorial do Imigrante', São Paulo

Photographed at the 'Memorial do Imigrante', São Paulo

Sunset with old farm house

Sunset with old farm house

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© Copyright Photographs and Texts: Jochen Weber

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